Meet Your Joints, The Underdogs

“My system uses no apparatus. The resistance of your own body is the best and safest apparatus.” ~Charles Atlas (1892-1972), bodybuilder.

Many people admire the appearance of a lean, muscular body, yet few appreciate the beauty of how your joints move and function. Early bodybuilders and athletes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries recognize the beauty of both joints and muscles. They performed feats of strength, agility, power and balance that few bodybuilders or athletes today can match. So what happened in the last 40 years in the modern fitness industry?

For decades, many coaches, personal trainers, and physical therapists have used the “body part” mentality when designing exercise programs, whether the goal of the athlete, client or patient wants to get stronger, lose weight, or alleviate back pain. However, when you swing a golf club or mop the floor, do you pay attention to what muscles you are using? Instead, you focus on the proper movement patterns to get the job the done where almost every muscle works together to create harmonic movement. Your brain recognizes movement patterns, not muscles.

Focus on movement, not what muscles you're using when you exercise.

Training a muscle group individually based on its textbook range of motion rarely guarantees that the movement pattern can be transitioned to a specific skill or get your faster and stronger. Many people who exercise at the gym or at home isolate their muscles and perform repetitive movements in one angle and in one direction, hoping that the exercise will improve their athletic ability or their health. This is analogous to squeezing a massage ball repetitively to play a piano better. The exercise strengthens your hand flexors and grip, but it does very little to help you play like Mozart.

When you look at your body from the side view in a standing position, you can see that your joints are stacked on top of each other like Lego blocks. This allows you to stand for a long period of time without much fatigue. If any of the joints are misaligned, then your body has to use more energy to maintain your center of gravity. This places excess stress upon your joints and muscles which can lead to pain and movement dysfunction.

Green = mobility Red = stability

Physical therapist Gray Cook, author of “Movement” and “Athletic Body in Balance,” discusses about joint stability and mobility often in his books and workshops. Stability is your ability to control movement while mobility is your ability to move in all range of motion. These two constantly work together in your body so that neither one exceeds its limitations that overshadows another. In reference to partner dancing, the woman is mobility who moves around and does the most number of spins, while the man is stability who supports the woman and help her control her movements and balance.

The woman is the picture; the man is the frame.

Each joint has a specific function and is prone to specific dysfunctions which can lead to dysfunction in other joints that are above or below the dysfunctional joint. For example, if your hip joints are stiff, then they would not be able to internally or externally rotate or extend and flex the leg properly when you walk or run. Therefore, your lower back compensates by increasing its mobility while losing its stability which results in pain.

Strength coach Mike Boyle, author of “Advances in Functional Training,” observed that mobility and stability alternate roles with each joint. If you lose ankle mobility, you lose knee stability which causes knee pain.  Lose hip mobility, you get low back pain. Lose thoracic spine mobility, you get shoulder and neck pain.

Instead of approaching exercise by the body part mentality, use the movement mentality, like push, pull, lunge, squat, rotate, etc. When you train movement, you train your muscles, too. When you train muscles, you do not always train better movement. The beauty of this holistic approach is that once you understand how your joints and muscles move together, you can create hundreds different exercises based on the concept of stability and mobility. Part 2 demonstrates joint mobility and stability.

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